We ought to have discovered Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx (2011) before now. The dense orchestration was dappled with soupçons of indigenous music, folk, noir, Harryhausen Hollywood and French impressionism. The New York Philharmonic poured it all molten gold and plummy red and let it radiate about the auditorium.
The premiere seemed to begin without its lighting engineer. All sat there fully lit, orchestra pounding away until the first decrescendo a few minutes in when the house was finally dimmed. If deliberate, it was rather gimmicky.
Conductor Alan Gilbert put in a measured performance throughout but fell short of expressing a dedication to the full trajectory of each work. He didn’t bathe in any of them. Joyce DiDonato too, though captivating, was fond of her score and made eyes at it throughout Ravel’s Shéhérazade.
Worth mention is the third and final poem in Ravel’s setting, ‘L’indifférent’ (‘The Indifferent One’). In it, the female protagonist yearns after an unknown youth with ‘eyes as gentle as a girl’s … hips slightly swaying in languid, feminine gait’. In life, Ravel upheld his privacy fiercely but it is widely supposed he was gay. A counter-tenor may have unearthed more here than a mezzo-soprano.
That said, DiDonato’s singing (always a highlight) was all light and depth. Every note carried an energy from a rich array of overtones. It made for a shimmering display. Special mention goes to NYP leader Sheryl Staples whose organic solo playing nicely complemented Richard Strauss’s exquisite ‘Morgen!’. It was a surprise ending to the first half, and DiDonato’s Barbican residency.
The Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales and ever seductive Der Rosenkavalier Suite by Richard Strauss followed. It was an unapologetic evening, pure Friday-night indulgence, Gilbert teasing the audience, ensnaring it in nostalgia. And why not? The NYP made an excellent argument for it. A vocal audience murmured in increasingly loud agreement.
Then an encore, Tchaikovsky’s act one waltz from Swan Lake. ‘As you can see, we’ve got waltzes on the brain!’ enthused Gilbert. The Strauss must have gone to Gilbert’s head because for a brief moment I’m almost sure both feet simultaneously left the podium – most unlike him.